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Large-scale cleaning in the Smart City of the future

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Cleaning robots for scrub vacuuming are at present economically viable on large, unobstructed surfaces that are not accessible to the public. The sensor technology must ensure environmental perception that guarantees safety. This will open up a whole range of possible applications, even on obstructed surfaces with public access.

These considerations highlight the fact that automation in city and infrastructure cleaning is not just a distant vision. Dr Alexander Rieck from the Fraunhofer IAO shows that the possibilities are limitless: “In order to ensure cleanliness in big cities in the future, small, efficient machines that are capable of performing various tasks and that operate autonomously and automatically will be most effective.”

For example, there are already solutions in buildings whereby mini-drones take off from a base station with small quantities of cleaning agent, fan out, clean and repeat the procedure until everything is clean.

For Dr Rieck, this vision goes even further: “It is important to link individual process steps at the lowest level in order to make much better use of limited resources, as can be illustrated by the example of a traffic island: the island can be mown by a robot, a kind of automatic “goat”; our goat can use the biomass to generate energy, and simultaneously vacuum the fine dust or, thinking further into the future, perhaps even utilise it.”

Looking back to the 1990s, when Kärcher put a cleaning robot into operation with a pilot experiment at Amsterdam airport, it becomes clear just how fast technology is advancing. How quickly will a world with autonomous robots and drones be possible?

Dr Rieck adds: “There is a saying that I like very much: we overestimate what we will be able to achieve in the next two years, and underestimate what we will be able to achieve in the next 10 years. Camera perception, autonomous driving, storage technology, battery technology, sensor technology, smart data – these parallel developments are creating synergies that will allow us to make huge leaps forward across the board.”

From sharing to pay-per-use: new technologies, new business models

New technologies are not only having an effect on the way in which cleaning is carried out, but also on the processes themselves. With networking and real-time acquisition via apps and smart devices, the doors are open to completely new business models. Philipp Kipf explains: “It is conceivable that building service contractors will stop buying cleaning machines and instead book the cleaning services of a machine for 5,000 square metres of tiled surface. Pay-per-use concepts like this are coming, and the challenge now for all companies on the market is to embrace these opportunities and develop attractive solutions.”

Sharing, on the other hand, is well known from platforms like Uber, the online intermediary for private and commercial driver services, or airbnb, for private subletting of living space to travellers during your own holidays or trips abroad.

Although there is often fierce debate surrounding the issues of fair remuneration and where the limits of commercial approaches should lie, at the heart of this is the collective, and therefore efficient use of available infrastructure.

Indeed, this can be transferred in a meaningful way to the professional field. In this case, demand, for example the level of dirt on a street, could be recorded via sensors. This is then managed by (partially) autonomous cleaning machines from municipal sharing systems. The advantage of this is that the required cleaning technology is shared, where possible, and not purchased, serviced and operated over and over.

The big picture at a glance:

How cleaning and recycling interrelate

Sustainability as a major issue of the future completes the cycle from dirt prevention through demand-actuated cleaning to recycling that is as comprehensive as possible – even including street waste.

In 2015, a British company discovered an interesting approach: street waste is filtered in a pilot facility in order to extract rare metals like palladium, rhodium and platinum. According to their own data, this generates 5kg per 50,000 tonnes of waste – a worthwhile model if the prices of these rare commodities continue to rise. Innovative ideas like this one demonstrate how smart the future could be and highlight the potential in all current developments.

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